I returned to the place of the lion faceoff, to measure the distance between us on that day; the most memorable day of my life in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Condor National Forest.
Using the yard measurement instrument of the common stride, as taught to us at Monte Vista Elementary school by Dr. Ehrenborg when playing football, I paced off 30 long steps.
And so it was over 90 feet.
Ninety feet sounds far to me when spoken of, sounds really far. Ninety feet also feels close when facing a lion, frightening close.
If asked before I had measured it, while sitting in town telling the story or whatever, I would have said the distance was much closer, maybe half as far.
How many loping strides would it take the big cat to close the distance? Not many. Not enough. Not nearly enough.
I walked up to the spot feeling uneasy. It’s hardly a stone’s throw from the road. I wanted to look around more, but I did not feel comfortable enough walking deeper into the woods, far from the road and my vehicle, with its alarm, the panic button in my pocket.
There are now places in the forest, certain settings, that I do not venture into alone for fear of a possible lion attack. It sounds ridiculous. I’ve never in my life thought much about lions when hiking.
The feeling will subside with time, surely, but for now things are different out there.
I see a lion track now and I turn circles, eyes darting around the creek, the rocks, the hills, wherever, all over.
Yet, I don’t ever really expect to see a cat. I’d like to think I’m being vigilant, but I know it’s driven by anxiety.
I didn’t even see the deer. Then, suddenly, they were there, staring at me with their big wet eyeballs in the mottled understory light. The deer materialized out of nowhere in an instant as I finally saw what I had been looking at.
There they stood, fifteen feet or so from where the lion had been standing staring me down weeks earlier.
I had walked up oblivious to the presence of deer when looking carefully to avoid a lion.
Everything expressed in the article hit home. Thanks, enjoyed reading very much.
For most of us I’d imagine tuning our senses on to backcountry mode isn’t easy. The situational awareness needed to survive seems to keep giving way to internal thoughts. We we could all use more here and now practice. Wilderness is a great teacher of presence if one is willing to learn.
Hey Jim. Great phrase, that: situational awareness. I always try hard for that, but as you suggest it can be easy to get sidetracked by thoughts.
It may be impossible for the human mind to relax when the body is in stride.
Your comment called to mind something I posted awhile back about walking and the resulting “thick forest of thought.”
“They operated by mental model. Automatons locked on a track. Like flinching at a sudden loud noise, automatically. Walking was second nature and they did so without thought of it.
Bodies powered and steered on their own accord, the long walk offered extended periods of otherwise unoccupied time, freeing the mind to wander, and there was a connection between the legs and the mind whereby working the former stimulated the latter.
The longer the walk the more fertile the mind. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers birthed their greatest ideas in stride.
Each man walked the same trail, but traveled afar through his own thick forest of thought. Neither man would have spoken a word had they been near enough each other to hear it.”
That’s an excerpt from the post on this blog titled, “Resuscitation.”
I know how you are feeling! My hiking equipment now includes a loud horn and a spray can of mace. I have always known that the mountain lions are in our neck of the woods, but now I’m freaking paranoid looking up into trees, turning around to check behind me and talking to the dogs. Really brilliant of you to use your panic button touché! It’sae Whole new normal hiking experience isn’t it?
Ha. Yes. Hey Beth. Good to hear from you.
My earlier comment didn’t post I think. Try, try again.
My housemate had close encounter with a Mountain lion while hiking with his Red Heeler/Chow Chow. Lockwood Valley. Year 2015 or so.
The cat was so well camouflaged, my housemate said he had zero awareness of it until it moved toward him. The dog then growled. Untypically (and thankfully), the dog was on-leash.
My friend said he’ll never forget the cat’s intense stare at his dog, unwavering, even as the cat commenced batting at the end of my friend’s hiking stick. “Just like a kitten with a toy,” was how he described it.
The Park Ranger later on told him he was very fortunate that it was a juvenile cat. The Ranger said, “If it had been an adult, you never would have seen it coming.”
Yikes. Well that takes it!
…and to wonder how many other times you’ve been seen by a lion without ever knowing it.
Yep. I never expect to see them, but I know they’re always around.
I’ve encountered mountain loins on trail multiple times. I think it’s because of having this habit of coming back from backpacking to the trailhead late cause I like stretching the trip out as long as possible.
Another thing for me is I’m more concerned with cats while on trail and bears when at camp.
Always carry bear spray and sometimes a firearm particularly when solo.
My other housemate was mountain biking near Knapps’ Castle (maybe 10 years ago) and a Mountain lion launched itself directly across his path. He said the one thing that really struck him was the size and length of the tail.
Wow. Thanks for your comment. What an experience, of course, but that’s interesting too about the tail.
We really enjoy your stories. You are such a talented writer.
While hiking I carry a plastic air horn. The pump kind. I intentionally stick the handle out of the top zipper on my backpack. That way I just reach over my head and pull it out. No crouching. Lol (Hikers often ask me what it is.) Should you loose your footing and end up somewhere that’s difficult to navigate out of….It can be used to call for help as well. It’s super lightweight with a very annoying sound.
Just a thought.